Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Landmarks of Liberalism

As you might have heard, several weeks ago the conservative magazine Human Events came out with this list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" (along with a batch of dishonorable mentions). Some of the "winners" were predictable (The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, Quotations from Chairman Mao), a few were surprisingly obscure (books by Auguste Comte, Theodor Adorno, and Georges Sorel), and still others were just silly wingnuttery (Freidan, Kinsey, Keynes).

Some progressive websites tried to produce parallel lists of "evil" conservative books, but the results weren't terribly interesting; as one blogger pointed out, liberals aren't as talented at compiling lists of enemies as conservatives are. (Our hearts aren't really in it--not vicious enough, I guess.) So I decided it would be more interesting to create a list of "Ten Most Important Liberal Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries," a progressive hall of fame to counter Human Events' hall of infamy, with titles chosen on the basis of their positive influence on societal thought and behavior.

Your nominations are hereby requested. To start the ball rolling, here are a few suggestions:

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. One of the great best-sellers of the nineteenth century, history's most influential anti-slavery tract in the form of a novel.

Civil Disobedience by H. D. Thoreau. Launched the notion of non-violent non-cooperation with an evil government; helped shape the thinking of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The Octopus by Frank Norris. Muckraking novel tracing the evil impact that the robber barons had on the working people they exploited.

Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Two titles from the second tier of Human Events' hate list, these books helped found the consumer and environmental movements of the second half of the twentieth century.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Brilliant evisceration of the anti-human "city planning" movement that destroyed hundreds of livable neighborhoods during the 1920s-19502.

Hiroshima by John Hersey. Great, simple narrative that helped promote national reconsideration of the morality of America's first use of atomic weapons.

The above titles may seem fairly obvious. Here's a more idiosyncratic personal choice:

Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa. One of the founding works of the "general semantics" movement, which sought to promote clear thinking through better understanding of the relationship between words and reality. Although Hayakawa later became a conservative university president and U.S. senator from California, this early book of his conveys a strong message of opposition to all forms of mindless prejudice, bigotry, chauvinism, and magical thinking. I read it when I was around thirteen and found it a remarkable eye-opener. I still wish more people would read and digest it.

What books would you nominate for this list? I'd especially appreciate your suggestions about books on the African-American experience (DuBois? Douglass? King?) and feminism (Millett? Freidan? De Beauvoir?), two of the many vast gaps in my education.

BONUS QUESTION: And what about great liberal movies? When our book group discussed Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson's book about the Scopes trial a few weeks ago, I got to thinking (for the first time in years) about that marvelous old picture Inherit the Wind. Not very historically accurate, it turns out, but charged with lively performances by Spencer Tracy and Frederic March as well as a great message of enlightenment and toleration.

That starts my list of liberal movies, followed by To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelve Angry Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. Your picks?
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